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P&Z split over Ludlow Road synagogue proposal

Published 7:45 am, Saturday, August 17, 2013
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A straw vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission shows the members are split evenly on renewed efforts by a local Jewish congregation to build a new house of worship on Ludlow Road.

Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk is seeking the P&Z's blessing for a site plan and special permit to build an approximately 4,000-square-foot, one-story center at 24 Ludlow Road. A vacant three-story building and a rented cottage now on the property would be demolished.

Three P&Z commissioners voiced opposition at the panel's meeting Thursday night -- Chairwoman Cathy Walsh, Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix, all Republicans -- while the three Democratic commissioners, Nora Jinishian, Ron Corwin and Howard Lathrop, said they were inclined to approve the project.

Tim Wetmore, a fourth Republican commissioner scheduled to vote on the application, did not attend the meeting.

Absent the possibility of a majority ruling, the commission agreed to postpone a vote till Sept. 19.

The project, in various forms, has sparked opposition from neighbors for at least five years. The P&Z in 2008 rejected a plan to convert the larger building on the site into a house of worship, but approved a similar proposal in 2009. Beit Chaverim, however, did not move ahead with the 2009 plan.

Opponents are concerned about the impact the synagogue's construction will have on traffic, parking and sewers.

In comments submitted this spring to zoning officials, police highlighted the "vague number of `special' occasions where the facility will be used for other purposes" and an "unknown number of occasions" when overflow parking would be required.

Architectural Review Board members, meanwhile, have declined to recommend the application, describing the proposed sanctuary's design as "not acceptable."

Central to the current application is whether the revised plans are materially different from the plans approved in 2009. The earlier plans called for the restoration of the main existing structure, while the new plans call for demolition and replacement of the building.

"I don't see material differences, but I see very unhappy neighbors," Jinishian said.

Corwin said "material difference" is open to interpretation.

"Different people are going to have different thresholds for tripping the material issue," he said.

Commissioner Chip Stephens said the application is considerably different from the 2009 approved plan.

"It is incomprehensible how you could look at this and say it's not a material difference," he said.